The classic neurotrophin hypothesis is based on the idea that innervating neurons derive 'mature' neurotrophin provided by the target for their survival. Yet large precursor forms of the neurotrophin nerve growth factor (NGF) have been reported in both central and peripheral tissues. In the present study, immunoblotting was used to survey peripheral tissues containing NGF-responsive neurons and to characterize various NGF species. These results demonstrate that 'mature' forms of NGF, i.e., the 13 and 16kDa species, are rare in sympathetic and sensory ganglia and in their peripheral targets, and that large molecular weight NGF precursors are abundant. In addition, certain NGF forms predominate in a given tissue, with each tissue exhibiting a characteristic NGF expression pattern. These findings suggest that NGF processing in peripheral tissues and in NGF-responsive ganglia may involve a variety of NGF species.